Thursday, March 23, 2017

Otters, Shells, and Genomes

Science News is asking questions about animal intelligence in an article about otters and tool use in a March 21, 2017 article. The article entitled, “Tool use in sea otters doesn't run in the family,” suggests that using rocks to crack open snails and other shells to get at the rich food inside, may truly be a learned behavior that each generation must discover.

Those who read this blog regularly will know that I am fascinated with the intelligence of animals. (You can read a quick summary here and find links to other articles on this subject in the same place.) Most of the writing and reading I have done on this subject has emphasized the learned aspect of such behaviour. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that crows teach other crows the techniques related to breaking open mussel shells and staying away from strangers. So, it is not surprising that researchers are having a difficult time finding the gene responsible for tool use in otters. However, I would caution us that just because a gene carrying this propensity has not been found, does not mean that the gene does not exist. The author of the paper even admits this when she suggests that “sea otters may all be predisposed to using tools because their ancestors probably lived off mollusks, which required cracking open.” Could it be that all otters carry the gene for tool use and only use it when necessary?

I am thankful for authors who give us interesting summaries of research papers. At the very same time, I am cautious about how that data is characterized. I encourage us to read with great discernment, “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”

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